Book Review Milestone: How to Outswim a Shark by Jess Keating

book review middle gradeWe thought we’d make it last year, but we came up just short. Today, though, I’m thrilled (and awed) to report that we have published book review 2,400. Our milestone review is Jess Keating’s latest title in the My Life is a Zoo series.

Frankly, I can’t remember the last time we published a book review for a newly released book. [The book launched on January 6, 2015.] So it feels odd – and kinda cool – to be part of the initial buzz surrounding a new title.

One of the things that sets our book reviews apart is that we want our visitors to get as many opinions about a book as possible. So if you’ve had a chance to read and write a review for How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel, be sure to add your book review to the collection on The Reading Tub.

BOOK REVIEW – Middle Grade Novel

How to Outswim a Shark without a Snorkel
by Jess Keating
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky, 2015

Swimming with sharks (snorkel or no snorkel) is easy compared to navigating life and friendship.

Summary (with a few more details)

It isn’t easy being world-famous Shep Foster’s granddaughter, though Ana Wright is on her way to being famous, too. She can’t walk around the zoo without being recognized by her young fans (thanks to that crocodile presentation and 3.4 million views on the Internet).

It is going to be an exciting summer at the zoo, too. Grandpa is putting the finishing touches on the new Marine Adventure Zone and he wants his “Ana Banana” to be the star of the shark tank! Just when she’s getting used to the idea, she gets some bad news: “Ashley the Sneerer” is interning at the zoo this summer, too. A-N-D she is going to be working with Ana on the shark presentation.

Ana’s burning questions: Why is Ashley here? Why is she being nice? What’s her motive? and why does her best friend Liv have to be in New Zealand?

A Reader’s Perspective

Read. This. Book. Whether you need a laugh or just want something that makes you smile, this is the book to pick up. I had not heard about the My Life is a Zoo series, and even without reading the first book, this was great.

Ana’s voice resonates from the page. She is daughter, granddaughter, sister, and less-than-confident 12-year-old. She’s also got a keen eye for life.

Ditto for Ashley. I don’t think it requires a spoiler alert to say that Ashley is not quite the girl Ana thinks she is. Like Ana, she’s got some growing pains and she’s tackling them head on.

If you stop reading our book review and say “oh, that’s a ‘girl’ book” then you’d be wrong. And you’re selling your readers short. The story is about

  • (zoo not withstanding) family life and relationships;
  • growing up – (see quote below!);
  • dealing with change – losing your best friend to New Zealand;
  • life beyond school.

Yep, it’s true. Beyond the marine animal facts and Ana’s Creature Files is the true story of how research isn’t just for term papers. Almost all of our cast works in the zoo – with scientists – and they are using a lot of the same skills they are learning in school for their jobs. Very effective way to weave in some STEM learning without anybody watching.

Tagged Quotes

These are a few of my favorite moments, marked with a Post-it.

To the brave kids, the weird kids, and the cool kids. Especially the ones who don’t yet realize they can be all three. (Dedication page)

Was this why all those people in teen movies are always crying? Maybe the leap from twelve to thirteen is like jumping over an Amazonian river, where you’re not sure if your going to make it or be eaten by piranhas instead. It was enough to make me want to hide under my pillow until I was out of this mess called “puberty.” [Chapter 14]

I always used to think that friends were something you found when you were younger, and you got closer as you got older together. You either had them, or you didn’t … [Chapter 23]

There is more to that second last quote, but I don’t do spoilers.

Bottom Line

Go to the library [links to the book page on] or buy yourself a copy. This is a refreshing, wholesome read. It begs to be shared and read aloud, and would be an excellent choice when you are  trying to select a book that works for mixed ages.

We thoroughly enjoyed How to Outswim a Shark, and did not feel like we were left behind by not reading book 1. That said, we are going to  grab a copy of How to Outrun a Crocodile When Your Shoes Are Untied … and be on the lookout for all the titles in the series from here on out.

If you’ve written (or are planning to write) a book review for How to Outswim a Shark, be sure to add it to the book review linkup  on the Reading Tub!


NOTE: This book review contains affiliate links to Any income from affiliate links goes to supporting our 501(c)(3) family literacy mission.

The Wheelbarrow Puppy Club – an Interview with Christina Valenti

Four paws up for authors who expand our world through stories of cultures different than our own!

We are excited to welcome children’s book author Christina Valenti to the Family Bookshelf.

After graduating from James Madison University and working in the media industry for several years, Christina moved to China, where she taught English for two years.

Christina ValentiAs Christina explains in our Reading Tub interview, every night, as she walked home from work, she would pass a wheelbarrow full of puppies for sale. She bought and adopted Wu (renamed Varly), eventually bringing him to the United States.

Christina has always loved reading, writing, and dogs. When she discovered and fell in love with Varly, it rekindled a love of writing. The Wheelbarrow Puppy Club is Varly’s story about living in China and coming to the States.

Meet Christina Valenti

Terry: As a dog lover – and the mom of a teen who begs to bring home every stray animal she sees – this was a particularly heartwarming story. Almost from the first page of The Wheelbarrow Puppy Club readers get the sense that this is a true story. When did you know that you wanted to write a book about Varly’s journey from China to the United States?

Christina: You’re right! The Wheelbarrow Puppy Club is based on my dog Varly, whom I rescued in Beijing. While I was living in China, I was always intrigued by the many dogs I would see roaming the streets or being sold on street corners. I wondered where they came from and where they would end up. I wanted to share Varly’s story as a way to give a sense of hope to this global issue of street dog overpopulation and how it is actually quite easy to help.

Terry: Walking in Varly’s paws for a minute – what is it like to be a dog in China? Is it common for families to have a pet, like a dog?

Christina: As China is evolving, having a pet seems to have become more popular, but still not as common as it is for Americans. You’re more likely to see street dogs roaming freely, searching for food and shelter.

Quite honestly, that isn’t uncommon in other countries. I would routinely see dogs who were looking for temporary shelter in restaurants. That isn’t acceptable here. In the United States, when someone sees a stray dog they typically look for a tag to call the owner or take it to a shelter.

Terry: Now that you’ve explained more about how dogs exist and are treated, and that you would see these puppies every night, what was it like having to choose just one puppy?

Christina: It was awful!  I mean, I am happy to have saved at least one dog.  If I could, I would have rescued all of the dogs that I saw throughout my travels in Southeast Asia.

I am passionate about animals and have a real appreciation for all of the organizations dedicated to saving and finding homes for them. I am planning to volunteer at a shelter called GO Rescue Pet Adoption starting in March once they relocate to Virginia Beach.

Even though I have reached out to a number of nonprofits, I have not heard back. I would like some of the sales proceeds from The Wheelbarrow Puppy Club to benefit a nonprofit. On the title page of the book, I suggest that people can donate to the Humane Society International.

Terry: Let me switch gears for a moment to talk about the “author” side of your experience. You have had quite an exciting ride since The Wheelbarrow Puppy Club was released in July 2014.

You had the opportunity to speak at the Baltimore Book Festival, your book was featured in the August issue of HillRag magazine; Free For All recommended it as a stocking stuffer in its 2014 Holiday Gift Guide, and Peak City Publishing included it in its Busy Box. Congratulations!! What’s next?

Christina: The Baltimore Book Festival was my first event as an author. I was honored to be selected as a speaker and it was a great way to get advice from other authors.

The Wheelbarrow Puppy Club is being featured in the January/February 2015 edition of the Humane Society’s All Animals magazine; and it will be in an upcoming edition of the Italian American Association’s national magazine. I will also be at the Capitol Pet Expo in March. I am looking forward to that event.

Terry: One of my favorite questions is to ask authors about connecting their story’s characters with other books. If you could introduce Varly to character(s) from another book who would you take with you for a playdate at the dog park? and Why?

Christina: Probably, Spot.  Based on all of the “Spot” books, Spot seems to have done a lot – Spot’s First Words, Spot Goes to School, Spot’s Camping Trip, etc.  I think Spot could teach Varly a few things. If Varlyhad her own book library, it would be filled with Spot books!

Terry: You’ve got another picture book underway, and you’re also working on a YA novel. What are you reading (when you’re not writing!)?

Christina: It is embarrassing, but I am still reading some of the youth romance books my friend Mary Beth (a teacher) introduced me to last summer.

Terry: You’re among bookworms, here! There’s nothing embarrassing at all. In fact, I try *not* to read books with an “adult” target audience. ;-) You’re hooked on YA romance now, have you always loved that genre?

Christina: I have always enjoyed reading and did a good amount of reading as a kid.  I remember being really into the Babysitter’s Club series.

Terry: Were you able to share any of your favorite books from childhood with your students in Beijing?

Christina: I didn’t have any books with me. During my second year, I taught at an international private school which had a huge library of books that I recognized. I would take my Kindergarten class there once a week to pick out a book. I was always so excited to show them books I remembered from my childhood, such as the Berenstain Bears, Madeline, and of course Dr. Seuss!

Terry: What wonderful selections! Those were lucky Kindergartners! Thanks for spending some time with us, Christina, and opening a window into a dog’s life in China!

Read more of our interview with Christina. Connect with her on social media, too.

Christina Valenti on Facebook  Peak City Publishing   Christina Valenti website

Literacy + Life – Music Playlist

Welcome to the second edition of Literacy + Life, our blog series that shares family literacy activities as a way to promote literacy.

family literacy ideasWant an easy way to bring literacy to the dinner table? Turn on a little music.

There are so many wonderful ways that music can contribute to literacy growth.

  • Lyrics help by adding to vocabulary, enjoying rhyme, or giving listeners a glimpse into a word’s many meanings.
  • Melody can evoke a mood or spur imagination.
  • The myriad of genres introduce different sounds and sound combinations, instrumental and/or vocal.

Enjoy your meal together with some dinner music. The sky’s the limit. Maybe you want to share some of your favorite songs; introduce new kinds of music; or bring to life music from books (musician biographies, music related to an historical period you’re reading about). Dinner is a great time to enjoy the experience.

Family Literacy Activities – The Music Menu

family literacy activities with musicListening to music is the spark, but conversation is important, too. Ask questions.

  • What kind of mood is the music trying to convey (emotion, imagination)?
  • If you could *see* the song in a movie, what kind of movie would it be (imagination, storytelling)?
  • How does the music make you feel (emotional connection)?
  • Does it remind you of someone (recall)?

Put together a playlist ahead of time so that when you sit down to your meal, you can just hit PLAY. That also gives you time to think about how you want to introduce your tunes. If you have information about the song or artist, share it. Maybe describe your “relationship” to the music. Is it the music you listened to in college?

Give your kids – especially middle school and high school students – a chance to create a playlist, too. If everyone has a turn, they’re more likely to be interested in the idea AND you can make it a regular event.

When it is their turn to be the DJ, let your kids take the lead on sharing why they picked the songs and ask questions. An added bonus: they might do some research. Reading AND critical thinking. Rock on!

Inspiration List

We don’t need craft supplies, but we might want some starter ideas for tuning into our musical family literacy activities. The sky truly is the limit. There is no requirement to tie the music to books, but if that’s of interest, here are a few ways to build family literacy activities around them:

  • Ask your local librarian to recommend books about music genres, instruments, or musicians.
  • Talk with your kids about what they’re studying in history. Select music that would have been popular in that time period.
  • Look at what you’re reading – is the book set in a specific time period? Select music that might fit.

We’ve got a broad collection of books that we’ve reviewed in the Reading Tub, as well. Here are some of our favorites.

  • Punk Farm by Jarrett J Krosoczka
    (creating music)

When you click the book titles, we’ll take you to the full review on The Reading Tub website. When you’re there, you have the option to find the books at your local library.

When you click the book cover, we’ll take you to Should you buy through Amazon – and it’s not endorsed – we can earn money to fund our literacy mission.

Your Turn

We’d love to hear your suggestions on ways of incorporating music into family literacy activities. Whether you have a favorite book or activity, or if you have a blog post on the topic, be sure to add it in the comments.